The New York Asian Film Festival, now a pop culture institution unto itself, started eleven years ago. Its movies were first screened at the Anthology Film Archives in the summer of 2002. For a while, the festival was just a colossal labor of love for fest founders Goran Topalovic, Nat Olson, Paul Kazee, Brian Naas and Grady Hendrix. The air conditioning at the Anthology broke a lot during the festival's first few summers, and the programmers paid for much of the festival's expenses with their personal credit cards. Most years, the festival earned just enough to break even, but each following year, they'd come back stronger and more determined than ever to show attendants genre films and arthouse experiments from across Asia.
With raffle drawings before each film, surprise screenings, and a plethora of special guests, the festival has become a staple of adventurous New York cinephiles' annual calendars. So while this year's program may seem like it's filled with familiar titles and faces, that's only because the New York Asian Film Festival (NYAFF) helped those titles and faces to become familiar. Oldboy, the poster child for the short-lived "Asia Extreme" movement of the early aughts, screened this past weekend with star Min-Sik Choi in attendance. And the first two Infernal Affairs movies, the crooked cop/gangster saga that inspired Martin Scorsese's The Departed, will screen this Friday. Which is fitting, since Infernal Affairs previously screened at NYAFF in 2004, while two of Oldboy director Chan-wook Park's films screened at the festival in 2003 and 2007, respectively. These guys don't jump on bandwagons, they get people on them: Park's Joint Security Area screened at NYAFF (before it was officially NYAFF) a year before Oldboy came out in America, and Infernal Affairs played NYAFF a couple of months before it got a miniscule limited theatrical engagement, thanks to the Weinstein brothers.
NYAFF also got Janus Films to dig up Nobuhiko Obayashi's psychedelic House, a film that has gone on to be one of the Criterion Collection's biggest sellers, from their vaults. They've started cults around filmmakers like Katauhito Ishii (The Taste of Tea; Funky Forest: The First Contact), Johnnie To (Exiled; Throw Down) and Ji-Woon Kim (I Saw the Devil; The Good, the Bad and the Weird). These guys may have started from (and with little!) scratch, but they went on to become wildly influential taste-makers.
This year, the original NYAFF programmers are not present: Olson and Naas have left the festival, while a couple of other succeeding NYAFF curators have assumed diminished responsibilities. And the festival's venue has changed over the years, too; this will be NYAFF's third year at Lincoln Center's fully air-conditioned Walter Reade. But not much else has changed. The festival continues to show support for the artists they've previously championed, further fostering a sense of community, with high-energy events for each of these screenings.
For example, Hong Kong filmmaker Edmond Pang has had a film screen at the festival before (Pang's Exodus screened in 2009). But this year, NYAFF will screen two of Pang's features and an eclectic shorts program called Pang Ho-Cheung's First Attempt. First Attempt was a one-time-only reprisal of an interactive experience where Pang talked about four of his early short films before, after and while they screened. Pang made these shorts with his mother and two brothers when he was 11, 12 and then 26 years old. The earlier shorts, where Pang improvised slow motion effects and spliced in footage from John Woo films like A Better Tomorrow, were definitely the highlights of what was shown. Their make-do aesthetic has a cockiness to it that makes every boombox song cue and every spliced-in scene of buildings exploding that much more endearing.
Better yet, before a screening of Pang's romantic comedy Love in the Buff, Pang and Hendrix re-enacted (with hand puppets!) the events of Love in a Puff, the romcom to which Buff is a sequel, for anyone that hadn't seen it. The NYAFF gang will do anything to make first-time attendants feel welcome, and they do it with such a unique combination of storied grace and aw-shucks charm that it's almost scientifically impossible to not be won over.
And the festival hasn't stopped making new discoveries either. On Sunday, the festival screened The Sword Identity, the directorial debut of Chinese screenwriter/action choreographer Xu Haofeng. Haofeng is the screenwriter of The Grandmasters, Kar-wai Wong's upcoming martial arts epic. Watching The Sword Identity, you can easily see a similarity between Haofeng's interests and Wong's. Haofeng has made a genre film ideologically grounded in the notion that actions reflect character and that physical gestures and techniques always express the essence of things. That's the kind of story that the protagonists of both In the Mood for Love and 2046 dream of writing and the kind that Wong tried to make in Ashes of Time.
Still, The Sword Identity, which screens again on the 11th, is very much an accomplished self-sufficient work and a compelling festival find. In his Sunday introduction to the film, Hendrix probably overplayed the fact that the film got a blase critical reception at last year's Toronto International Film Festival. But The Sword Identity is now very much a NYAFF find, a film whose vision of heroism perfectly matches the festival's ethos. NYAFF programmers know that, when it comes to screening exciting and innovative films, it's not just the thought that counts. These guys never program in a half-assed manner; they always pull out as many stops as they can. To paraphrase Harlan Ellison, the most important thing about NYAFF is not that they became a great film festival–it's that they've remained a great film festival. Here's to another eleven years of discoveries at the New York Asian Film Festival.
Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.